My Shot at Nigerian Millions

I answered an e-mail promising a fortune for helping desperate foreigners move money overseas. They called me -- then got cold feet

By Diane Brady

Nigeria has always held a certain appeal for me. It's the land that spawned one of my favorite authors, Chinua Achebe, who wrote Things Fall Apart, and it was a hotbed of African cultural trends when I lived in Nairobi as a graduate student. And it also seems to spawn its fair share of scams.

Perhaps none is better known than "advance-fee" frauds. Also known as "4-1-9" scams after the section of the Nigerian penal code that addresses them, these ploys usually involve a person pretending to have access to a vast sum of money that he or she needs help to get out of the country. In return for access to their bank accounts or other services, the soon-to-be victims are promised huge cuts of the "proceeds." Often, the victim is asked to fork out hundreds of dollars up front -- and then thousands -- to cover the bribes, administrative costs, and other fees that are said to be required before the money can be moved out of the country. And the money never materializes.


  The ploy dates back to the 1980s. Then, the pleas arrived by mail, and later, by fax. These days, the Internet has radically improved the fraudsters' cost margins and efficiency, to the point where the U.S. Secret Service received 326,000 reports of 4-1-9 e-mails last year -- up from 33,000 in 2001. And the Web has no doubt helped fraudsters beef up their address books: Similar pitches by mail increased to 38,000 pieces last year, from 7,500 the year before.

Secret Service spokesman Brian Marr says his organization tracked losses of $24 million to U.S. victims of 4-1-9 fraud in 2002. And that's just what was taken from those who were willing to come forward. "It's a very underreported crime," says Marr. The reason? Victims are often extremely embarrassed by their own gullibility and greed.

According to the National Fraud Information Center, Nigerian money offers made up 4% of all Internet fraud in 2002. They're the third-largest source of complaints, after online-auction fraud and general-merchandise fraud. The nonprofit Wipe Out Nigerian Scams Team (WONST) has recorded 2,870 different phone numbers used by scammers in major cities all over the world. And the tactics have, on occasion, even led to the murder of several people who have actually flown to Nigeria, says Marr. Maybe that's why the folks from WONST refused to give me a number to call, instead calling me to say how dangerous these schemes can be.


  Over the past month, my computer suddenly became cluttered with loads of e-mail from self-proclaimed Nigerian VIPs, each offering a hefty cut of their purported millions if I would only help them get the dollars out of the country. There were other twists, too, such as pleas from members of a "rich" family in Iraq claiming they needed my help to transfer $12.5 million, as well as similar e-mails from someone claiming to be a wealthy farmer in Zimbabwe.

Rather than toss the latest pitches from West Africa into the trash with porn spam and mortgage-refinancing offers, I decided to get into the game. For each plea that came in, I simply typed, "Sure! Tell Me More!!" and hit the reply button. Several of the messages bounced back to my inbox because the return address didn't actually exist -- perhaps a testament to the user's lack of faith in his or her own powers of persuasion. Others asked me to call a phone number, which I consistently refused to do, as calling special toll lines or making long-distance calls is a quick way to lose cash.

Then I struck up a correspondence with "Princess E.," who seemed genuinely excited by my "willingness to help a fellow sister in need." (I'm not using any of the senders' full names in case they have been borrowed from innocent people.) I was to deal with her younger brother, K, who was described as "the real speaker to the family."


  According to Princess, their dead father had left a lot of funds and property to his kids and their "aged mum." An evil uncle had taken almost everything, however, except for some money lodged with a friend at a security company in London (for which Mum had a deposit receipt). Because the family was being monitored by the villainous uncle, their preference would be to deposit the money in my account, a service for which I was promised a hefty fee. What's more, despite having sent only a four-word reply, the family claimed they could already tell I was an "honest and godly person."

I e-mailed back: "How horrible. Feel free to call me!" Within 10 minutes (impressive, given the six-hour time difference between New York and Nigeria), I received an e-mail from Princess, who was using brother K.'s e-mail address. Marveling that God surely does work in mysterious ways, she again insisted that I call either K. or another person, who was identified as the director of the security company and "happens to be my father's close ally." Then she peppered me with hyperbole about her situation and phone numbers for her mother, who would love to talk to me.

At this point, I insisted that a member of the family call me. After all, what's a few dollars for a call when millions are at stake? When the call came, it was Princess E's brother. From the 234 international code that flashed on my caller I.D. screen, it seemed that he was indeed in Nigeria. He sounded a bit miffed that he had to take the initiative, but seemed willing to proceed.

"O.K. Will you be able to get to London if we can return the funds?" he asked. I hedged, asking him why he couldn't do it himself. "In the will of my father, he wants a foreigner to handle the funds," he replied, adding: "He doesn't trust Nigerians or other Africans."

Why me, I wanted to know. "Princess wants a lady who is God-fearing and trustworthy," he explained. By Diane Brady


  Despite being promised 10% of $27 million and 15 minutes of irate protests from the brother, I refused to call the director of the security company, insisting he would have to call me. Within minutes of hanging up, the director himself called me -- again from a Nigerian area code, even though I had been led to believe he would be calling from London. After introducing himself by name and giving the title of his company, he told me that Princess and her brother "have submitted your name as the beneficiary to their father's account." So quick, considering the amount of paperwork that must be involved!

I asked why it was necessary to secure a foreigner when the funds were already in London. The dead father had insisted a foreigner be used, the director reiterated. And why are they too poor to afford shoes, as Princess E's brother had claimed, if their father had so many millions lying around? "This is not my duty to explain. I am a busy and very important man." he replied. Could they arrange a meeting in New York, I wanted to know? With the right paperwork and accounts, it could be arranged, he assured me. "They insisted I call you," said the caller before hanging up. "Can't you see how lucky you are?"

Others apparently do. The U.S. Secret Service has posted on its Web site a warning about the scam and a detailed explanation of how it works. And from the Central Bank of Nigeria comes a somewhat defensive statement "specifically intended for the benefit of those misguided people who, in the quest to make easy money at the expense of Nigeria, are defrauded by international fraudsters." The sole aim is to collect the advance fees -- either by cleaning out bank accounts or getting checks to cover fees for various taxes, attorney fees, transaction fees, or bribes. States the bank: "You have been warned several times before! You have been warned again!!"


  Other common confidence tricks revolve around third-party checks, which scammers claim they can't cash themselves. If you put up money as security and cash the problem check on their behalf, they will split the money. Of course, by the time you realize the check is no good, they have disappeared.

Then there are frauds built around "new investment funds," offers of special chemicals that transform ordinary paper into U.S. dollar bills, and other hoaxes. Marr says anyone who has lost funds through such schemes should contact the U.S. Secret Service in Washington, D.C. at (202) 406-5572 or by e-mail e-mail.

I would never have that opportunity. About 30 minutes after my discussion with the caller from the alleged security company, an e-mail appeared: "after your tel discussion with [the director], he formed the opinion that you might not be capable to assist us finalise this project, so he has advise us to continue our search in trying to get somebody who is god fearing willing and able to assist us. god be with you, princess and [K.]."

Brady is an editor for BusinessWeek in New York

Edited by Beth Belton

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.